May 2330, 1996
The Low Road
Fidelity (Passenger/ Caroline)
The Low Road's been thinking hard about sound: even the one-word title of their second album suggests (from Webster's) "the degree to which an electronic device accurately reproduces its effect." It's this overwrought and overthought quest for perfection that stifles the Philadelphia quintet, famous for their curious arrangements and library of musical styles.
Veering away from their folkier sounds, the band moves into all kinds of rockier terrain: a loose hip-hop beat mixes with Middle Eastern flourishes and a wailing harmonica ("Leave You Hanging"); a "Sympathy for the Devil"woo-woo jumps into multi-harmonies and several breaks and changes as a cello steers its own avant-garde flight. Sounds cool on paper but ultimately it's too much clutter.
Still, a few songs achieve an unforced beauty. The album starts off with a punch: "Mean and Average" is the Low Road at their simplest and sauciest (Brenner sings, "Used to be so lean and savage/ Turn around I'm just mean and average"). "Courageous Baby" builds on a tiny, string-plucked melody as if winding up and around a mountain. Brenner's vocals are elegant at best ("Another Cup of Joe") and self-consciously arty at worst ("Jealous Husbands").
The Low Road has always drawn on The Pixies as an influence they've even taken to covering the Pixies song "Gigantic" on Fidelity. Both groups are at their best when they keep things spontaneous and simple; unfortunately, Fidelity is too often neither.